At the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 close to 30 million people withstood interminably long lines and blazing hot sun in order to view what was by far the fair’s most popular and memorable exhibit. Known as “Futurama,” it was part of the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” exhibit. Suspended high above a 35,000 square foot diorama of a fictional United States, visitors were moved along a people conveyor known as the “carry-go-round” one third of a mile in length. Below them lay an exciting first view of a nation connected by a transcontinental interstate highway system. The exhibit has been widely regarded as the car industry’s most successful sales pitch for private car dominion to a mass audience.
Ironically the exhibit’s visionary creator, Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), while a firm supporter of the vast interstate highway system connecting one city to another, nevertheless, stood in opposition to the expansion of that very system within city boundaries. He wrote about this in a book he published in 1940 called Magic Motors. He felt inner-city highways would only cause congestion problems where existing city grids could already disperse traffic effectively.
Bel Geddes reputation led to a request by President Franklin Roosevelt to consult with him on transportation issues. Nevertheless, Bell Geddes stance that the largest highways should be kept to the countryside and not driven into the heart of cities was not without opposition. Robert Moses referred to Geddes’s thinking as “bunk.” Unfortunately for us all, we know whose vision was to be triumphant in the end.
Pressure for a national interstate highway system, first widely stimulated by Bell Geddes’s captivating display, eventually grew to culmination with President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. But even with that momentous act, there were reports that Eisenhower himself was none too pleased upon discovery that federal funds were being used to build inner-city expressways.
The point of this is to show that there were concerns about inner city highways from the very beginning, even amongst the interstate’s most ardent supporters and shapers. Seventy to eighty years later we have abundant evidence that those early trepidations were well founded. A once utopian vision for a transcontinental interstate highway system degenerated into a nightmare for America’s cities as those highways began to progressively plow their way into the very center of cities.
Sadly, Buffalo was to become an unfortunate victim of this devolution. The I-190 cut us off from the water, our most valuable asset and the source of our historical identity. The Scajaquada Expressway (198) and the Kensington Expressway (33) sliced our city in half. They divided and destroyed neighborhoods. They intensified toxic pollutants and noise levels by concentrating all traffic into a limited number of channels. Originally propagandized as a means of resuscitating our central business district they had exactly the opposite effect. They actually facilitated suburban sprawl and wound up emptying once thriving commercial arterials.
While these destructive consequences may have been duplicated in other cities, there is one particularly disheartening outcome that is uniquely shameful for Buffalo. That is the utter defilement and desecration of the unrivaled magnificence that once was Olmsted’s landmark design for our city. We have debased his flagship Delaware Park and completely pillaged what was once regarded to be amongst the most beautiful streets in the world, Humboldt Parkway. We were entrusted with stewardship of a priceless treasure and what have we done? We have treated it with disdain. We have blighted much of it and in the case of Humboldt Parkway we have destroyed it altogether.
Humboldt Parkway is particularly meaningful to me. I was born and spent the first twenty-one years of my life on that street. During that time I personally witnessed the horror of an elegant park-like median where we played as children being brutalized into a treacherously dangerous and health-threatening “car sewer.” There is nothing that would mean more to me before I die than to see the complete, undiminished restoration of Humboldt Parkway’s lost grandeur.
I fear, however, that such an aspiration is about to be shackled for another fifty years. More than a billion taxpayer dollars are about to be squandered into the refortification of a tragic mistake that should never have taken place to begin with.
The extravagantly costly proposal to cap a small section of the Kensington Expressway (33) between Best Street and East Ferry Street is no more than a wasteful, short-sighted “quick fix” designed to literally “cover up” an historic blunder that has been a plague on this city since its very inception.
The concerns of citizens directly adjacent to the area about to be covered are more than legitimate and have definitely gone too long unaddressed. But is the siloed approach being taken the best and most equitable way of dealing with the situation? The Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) is a neighborhood organization that, while advocating no change to the status of the Kensington Expressway itself, has been a longtime effective proponent for the construction of the aforementioned cap over it. Even their website admits that construction of the cap will involve some widening of the current expressway and improvements to the expressway walls that will make them good for another 75 years. Where does that leave the concerns of the far larger number of communities situated along the rest of the blighted path of this colossal error? What relief are they likely to expect in the future when forced to deal with what will then be a freshly enhanced and revitalized expressway? And as for those communities unlucky enough to be situated at the tunnel’s entrances, what is likely to happen to their property values? It is hard to imagine such a location will ever be considered desirable.
Perhaps a look at the experiences of those dealing with the Scajaquada Expressway (198) on the other side of Main Street could be beneficial for those involved in the Kensington Expressway (33) effort. For more than a decade the matter of the Scajaquada Expressway was put completely in the hands of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). Similarly to what seems to be happening with the Kensington Expressway, NYSDOT declared that there was basically only one practical option with a few minor (and unacceptable) variations. What more could be expected from an agency specifically designed and engineered to facilitate the flow of traffic? Its highly trained traffic specialists and engineers are not equipped to properly address other related community concerns and values – social, economic and aesthetic.
Luckily, in the case of the Scajaquada Expressway the matter was eventually handed over to the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC). As a metropolitan planning organization, GBNRTC was equipped to address a much broader range of important and relevant issues than the insular physical design of a particular road. They immediately set up a consulting team that assembled a large amount of impressive new data from a greatly expanded area of interest cleverly labeled “Region Central.” Within a visionary approach, many mobility options were considered. The result has been four very different mobility scenarios for public consideration and feedback. Meetings were held (available on line) where all were made to feel welcome. An excellent website was set up and public response to everything was encouraged through surveys. Most importantly, the fact that Olmsted’s Delaware Park attracted city-wide attention to the effort was seen as a benefit. The resulting broader input of ideas and support was celebrated rather than being feared as an invasion from “outsiders.”
My strongest held belief in the area of urban design is that it is Great Streets that make for Great Cities. Humboldt Parkway was truly a Great Street!
In his must-read book, The Best Planned City in the World, author Francis Kowsky reports on the 1876 visit to Buffalo by Eduard Andre. Andre was a renowned landscape architect who worked with Alphand and Haussmann on the design of Paris. According to Kowsky, Andre wrote that Buffalo’s avenues-parterre such as Humboldt Parkway surpassed anything in Europe. Kowsky also offers a 1937 quote from the German-born city planner, Walter Curt Behrendt. “I walked under the shadow roof of the beautiful trees in Humboldt Parkway, enjoying the pulsating life of the city revealed in the uninterrupted flow of traffic.” He continues, “Many a European city would envy Buffalo for her wide, spacious avenues bordered by such beautiful trees.”
Along with cities such as Paris and Washington D.C, Buffalo is blessed with Grand Manner Design and its unrivaled hallmark of nineteenth century grandeur. The Westside is fortunate enough to have preserved that grandeur with its opulent traffic circles and elegant parkways such as Bidwell, Chapin and Lincoln. On the other hand, with the demolition of historic Humboldt Parkway, the Eastside has been brutally robbed.
Those born after Humboldt Parkway’s demise have been deprived of any personal recollection of its former majesty. As a result, politicians and organizations think they can dupe citizens with promises to authentically “Restore Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway” while keeping a maximally functioning expressway fully intact. Don’t let them fool you! Some bushes and “dinkified” trees on a lawn scarred by air vents, smoke stacks, scrubbers, and other mechanical interventions and halted midway by an entrance into a deep underground tunnel is not the once noble and dignified Humboldt Parkway. Referring to it as such is an insult to Olmsted as well as the legacy of our benevolent, foresighted city’s founders.
From the very beginning there were warnings that the movement of highway systems into inner cities would have disastrous consequences. The Kensington Expressway has been undeniable proof of that. Instead of sinking a billion more dollars into building it up, the time has come to move toward traffic dispersal and gradual removal. As for a highway connection between the airport and downtown there is the 90 into the 190. How many such connections does a city the size of Buffalo require?
One city after another has successfully removed its inner-city highways. So far there have been no carmageddons. Drivers quickly found alternate routes. While there may have been some grumbling to begin with, I suspect there are few who would choose to see those highways rebuilt again.
The time is long overdue for a complete, undiminished restoration of Humboldt Parkway in all its Olmstedian grandeur. The proud citizens of Buffalo deserve nothing less. Great Streets Make for Great Cities!
Public Meetings on the Kensington Expressway/NYS Rte 33
The State Department of Transportation is launching its formal engagement process and will host two public meetings on the Kensington Expressway project.
Date: Thursday, June 30, 2022
Place: Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt Pkwy, Buffalo, NY 14211
Time: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. -AND- 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.These public engagement sessions will provide community members with an opportunity to learn about the various options being considered for the project and to provide feedback to Department of Transportation officials. The input received at these sessions and other public involvement opportunities to be held during the environmental review will help inform the decision-making process for the Project.
Public Meeting on GBNRTC’s proposed mobility scenarios for the Scajaquada Corridor
The Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council is hosting a public meeting for Region Central, also known as the Scajaquada Corridor, NYS Route 198.
Date: Wednesday, July 13, 2022 (see Facebook event)
Time: 5:30 p.m – 7:00 p.m.
Place: Canisius College Science Hall – 1901 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14208
This meeting will be the same as the May 4th, 2022 meeting at Buffalo State College, and will present 4 scenarios for reimagining the Scajaquada Corridor and will provide an opportunity for public comment. Click here to view the 4 scenarios and share your comments online!
Also see Part I of this series: